Farewell to Ayi
Shortly after I moved to Shanghai in early 2004 I decided to hire an ayi (housekeeper/maid) to do some cooking and cleaning. (Her last name was Zhou, so I’ll call her “Zhou Ayi.”) I really enjoyed having a cook, and I wasn’t shy about expressing my great satisfaction with Zhou Ayi. Things were great for a while.
Over time, our relationship worsened. I find it difficult to explain exactly how or why, but I’ll try.
Zhou Ayi was never much of a talker, so I can’t say that we got to know each other very well over time. She got to know what foods I liked and disliked, but beyond that, familiarity didn’t exactly beget a whole lot of fondness.
My girlfriend was especially nice to Zhou Ayi. She would frequently chat with her, give her little presents, and asked me to get something for Zhou Ayi’s son when I went home to the USA for a summer visit. Unsurprisingly, Zhou Ayi really liked my girlfriend too. It actually annoyed me at times, because Zhou Ayi would communicate with only my girlfriend when she was there.
Over time, an almost tangible barrier between us grew larger. My roommates never spoke to her, and I would speak to her when necessary, but made very little other small talk. My girlfriend didn’t talk to her a whole lot more than I did. We would leave the door open for the ayi, and she would come in without a word. She would leave the same way. It may sound like we treated her badly, but we really had no such intentions. We were caught in a self-perpetuating cycle.
From the beginning, Zhou Ayi was not very good at cleaning. Dishes she “washed” would frequently be greasy, and glasses would have spots. She would miss large spots when mopping or dusting. I would make half-hearted attempts at pointing these out to her, and she would correct them, but I knew in a day or two I’d be seeing the same thing. We put up with the shoddy cleaning because we all really liked her cooking.
At about the year mark, Zhou Ayi seemed to have stopped caring. She made the same dishes so often that I had to tell her to mix it up. (Brad came over for dinner three times, and by coincidence she cooked the same meal all three times.) Her cleaning didn’t get any more efficient, but she started doing it faster. We paid her by the month, so it was in her best interest to get out fast. I think she had another job to run off to. Effectively, though, we were paying her more per hour than ever, for work that was at an all-time low, quality-wise. Still, there was a sort of relationship there, and I was reluctant to break it off or to confront her directly.
It was extremely suspicious when she made a few errors in calculating the food money. When I tallied the books, there were already several months of records. Zhou Ayi might have thought I would never tally them. I found one error that resulted in 20 RMB extra in her pocket. Another error, later in the records, gave her 100 RMB. I pointed these out to her, and she was, naturally, confused, and wanted to check the math again. She insisted her manual calculations were correct, but she couldn’t argue with Excel. I couldn’t be sure she had intentionally tried to cheat us–first testing with a small amount, then moving to a larger amount–and I really wanted to believe she was honest, but a seed of mistrust was planted.
For a while I tried hard to improve relations. I talked to her more, gave her more feedback, and gave her specific tasks so that she couldn’t run off so early. I reasoned that by getting more for my money, I would be happier with her, which might return a better attitude from her. This worked to some extent. The food improved for a while.
What finally made up my mind was the escalation in food money costs. I found that even after Carl moved out and there were only two mouths to feed instead of three, the food costs were the same. Furthermore, with time, they were actually increasing. Zhou Ayi’s explanation was “rising food costs.” I pretty much made up my mind that she was padding her figures when a meal of eggplant, some pork, and eggs and tomato came out to 20 RMB. (Multiple locals confirmed my sense that the meal shouldn’t have cost more than 10 RMB in ingredients.)
So what was I going to do? My girlfriend was adamant that I could not accuse Zhou Ayi of dishonesty. I had two choices: (1) tell her she had to start buying all groceries at the grocery store and give me the receipt (does that not amount to an accusation?), or (2) let her go for some made-up reason.
Before I decided exactly how I would handle it, I found a job which required me to work evenings. Since my roommate regularly works late, no one would be home to let an ayi in or eat her cooking. So we let her go. There were no tears or sentimental goodbyes on either side.
It may seem obvious to the reader that Zhou Ayi was not a good hire, but at the time it never seemed that way. For one thing, we had built up a relationship (even if it wasn’t the friendliest one), so when things started to go bad, it wasn’t so easy to just end it. For another thing, I really had no way to know for sure that the ayi‘s explanations weren’t the truth, and I was loathe to fire her unjustly. Even if her cleaning wasn’t top-notch, I knew she was a hard-working woman struggling to help put her son through college back in Wuhan, and I wanted to help her. She was not a faceless worker from the countryside.
Despite the lack of proof, I knew I had to let her go because my doubts about her poisoned the relationship. I couldn’t look at her the same way after suspecting that she was cheating me. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the principle. When I found myself wondering if she even really had a son in college, I knew it was time to say farewell.
This entry is part three of a series on ayis. See also: To Ayi or Not to Ayi, The Ayi System, My Ayi Crush
wow, that’s kinda sad. but i think i understand your dilemma. i’m glad things worked out so that it was not difficult for you.
Are you going to try to find a new one?
Already did. Stay tuned for the next installment: My Ayi Crush!
Something very similar happened in my family, but in Spain, and with a Sapnish “ayi”. It’s always difficult, because usually normal people we don’t have much experiencie to be bosses, let alone about turn our house into a “danwei”. Anyway, this is life. My girlfriend doesn’t let me to have ayi, she doesn’t trust in them, so she makes her mother come our home to clean and cook somedays, and I don’t feel very well with that, but I don’t know how to change.
Hi John, a concise replay of the experience that was. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. In a good way, you’ve learned a valuable lesson that will allow you to skip on the mistakes that you made with your first ayi.
Next time, you can have your ayi present to you a list of meals that she can make (maybe 5 different meals throughout the week, same every week) and calculate what each will cost beforehand, this way there is no escalating or “rising food costs” that we all know doesn’t exist. I’m glad you saved her face, err, not really, but then again, “padding her pocket with 100 rmb” isn’t legit and deserves to be confronted about it.
In general, fussin’ over 20 rmb meals ($2.50) is not worth fighting over but I do understand the principal behind being legit.
Again, I’m sure you won’t make the same mistakes with your next ayi … and another thing, you have to understand that you’re working with a bottom level worker , not some upper class well-rehearsed, world traveled, disciplined, successful, etc. person – so a lot of things that you have an understanding about are completely over their head. Also, especially with Chinese workers, you have to bitch and moan and teach and prop and lecture and instruct exactly what to do, almost daily and almost always, repeatedly like you’re talking to a wall — that’s the very nature of the Chinese person. Nagging was born in China, and for good reason, trust.
Thanks for the inspiring post on daily life in Shanghai, enjoyed the read before I take off to Tahoe for NYE 2006.
What an unbelievably asinine statement. So, because she’s not a well-travelled college graduate she doesn’t have an understanding of the basics of right and wrong? That stealing from your employer isn’t a good thing? That’s an enormous insult to a huge class of hard-working honest people who are at that place in society not through any fault of their own but rather because they were dealt a pretty crappy hand and are making the best of it. Honestly, I would rather be around a bunch of “bottom level workers” who work hard than a bunch of college grads that hang on their parents’ purse strings.
Yes, John’s old ayi was a bad egg, but to paint an entire class of people as lacking understanding of moral principles is simple elitism.
I don’t know how to respond to this without devolving into ad hominem attacks, but do you actually read the things you write?
Supposedly, the hardest person to let go is the incompetent nice guy. Not exactly the same situation here but close.
Looks like Google is “cleaning up” on ads associated w/ this entry. 🙂
Hmmm, i’m thinking if it’s a good topic for the end of this year? well, let it go.
Happy New Year!
What did you want? A “best of 2005” list? No thanks. I’ll stick to my own topics in this case.
Please post pics in your next ‘Ayi Crush’ entry. 😉
I have to totally agree with John B. in regards to Wilson’s comments. Abosolutely inappropriate. It’s baseless elitist rhetoric like that that perpetuates the idiotic notion that money makes a better person. It’s obvious that’s not true. Save comments like that for the yacht club, because people who actually work for a living aren’t to keen on being told how lowly they are.
Sorry for the loss of your Ayi, but it seems that it was unavoidable and for the best in the long run. I think one of the problems was that the two of you didn’t form that close a bond to begin with. When interviewing for you next one might I suggest having a little Barry White playing in the background. Nothing says, “Welcome to a Warm Den of Love” like Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Slow dance with them as well. Hold them close, make them feel safe. I know that’s hard for you because you have the emotional spectrum of a robot accountant but try it. Oh! And make them sign their work contract or any paper work involved in blood. Nothing makes a bond like blood. Anywho love you miss you and hope you had a wonderful New Year’s eve and a joyous New Year!!! Yay!!
John B and Greg, as much as I would like to agree with your criticism, Wilson has a point. I disagree with his classist argument, but have to agree with his point about TRUST. Have any of you done business in China? Read any book about business in China? C’mon, don’t be so friggin naive
Here’s a year end list for you: top five reasons John’s roomate didn’t like Zhou Ayi
To counteract all this negativity I want to assure everyone (and thanks for caring about our domestic help situation) that the new Ayi is as good as the last one was lousy.
I didn’t mean everybody was waiting to see a best of 2005 list, it’s so stupid you know.
well, i can see it’s always hard to handle these things, no matter what relationship you’ve built up.
I know your feelings, so John, what if Zhou Ayi tell you the truth (that she’s cheating)? will you forgive her and keep her going on? Is this due to the honesty or satisfaction with the job?
Wow, I had the exact same experience with my ayi! She started out great and then just got slacker and slacker and seemed to care less and less, until finally I had to dump her. A couple of events were just the last straw:
(1) My girlfriend discovered that Ayi was regularly taking showers at our place.
(2) We received phone calls from people asking for Ayi on our home phone.
(3) A friend of mine was staying and happened to be home when Ayi was working, he told me she watched the TV all day.
(4) Ayi accidentally dropped one of my socks into the toilet and didn’t even notice!
Well, John B & Greg, tell me this, is an ayi shaving off 10-100RMB from her employer better, worse, or the same as a CEO negotiating several million dollars in salary, stock options, and a golden parachute, then proceed to destroy value (oversee the company lose a percentage of it’s worth on the stock market) and layoff workers? Obviously, one’s perfectly legal, and the other isn’t. Which one is more/less right/wrong, though? Keep in mind that social norms are different across cultures (and yes, I daresay, across classes–ask the CEO Roundtable about the ethics of the CEO who destroys value, lays off workers, and makes millions, then ask some of his plant workers). In some cultures, white lies are OK, in others, they aren’t. In some cultures, eating some of the food money is OK if the employee makes up for it in other ways, in others, it’s a major sin. In some cultures, slacking off at work (or leaving work early) is OK if it is made up for in other ways (by meeting deadlines, for instance), in others, it’s a major sin.
BTW, John, asking her to keep receipts of the stuff she bought isn’t accusing her of dishonesty, necessarily, because it could just mean that you do not trust her ability to add and subtract, so it would still have saved her face.
Not so naïve (real men post using pseudonyms, lemme tell you),
Where does Wilson make a point about trust? Obviously John should have (and was right to) get rid of this ayi. My argument was that he’s basically calling a huge group of people intrinsically less honest because they’re laborers, and that is wrong.
I live in China, and virtually every time I’ve gotten screwed it’s been by someone rich trying to make more money, not by someone scraping to get by.
What is your point exactly? Yes, social norms are different across cultures, but can you name a single culture in which it’s OK to steal from your employer (or anyone, for that matter)? Some cultures may see it differently, but I have a hard time buying what John’s ayi was doing as right–it certainly isn’t in either American or Chinese culture (the two cultures involved).
As for the CEO example, I agree that’s wrong, and it seems to support my argument that money and power don’t buy moral rectitude, so I’m not sure how you were trying to use it as a counterargument.
A lot of people from the countryside come to the big city (like Shanghai), and they aren’t aware of the implicit social contract that living in close contact with other people every day requires. Things like public cleanliness, following traffic laws, and being polite when people bump into you on the bus are rules that city people grow up learning in school and from their city-dwelling parents. Of course, some things like basic moral behavior runs across the urban-rural divide, but the rules I described above are just more important in the city.
When I see people that wear clothes indicating they are from the countryside, and I see them littering or ducking under the ticket stiles in the metro station, I can give them a pass because they obviously haven’t learned the rules yet or are just visiting, but when they live in the city for a long time and don’t learn the social contract then it’s just disrespect for other people.
So you can’t say that city people and rural people are exactly the same. Nor can you say that they don’t share anything. They share moral codes (and break them just as often), but there are sets of rules that they don’t share, and it’s OK to point that out too.
Well, if you were making a few hundred RMB per month, wouldn’t you be ducking under the ticket stiles?
No one will dispute that people from vastly different backgrounds will probably have vastly different ways of thinking. Don’t you think, however, that in China the root cause of the differences you are talking about has much more to do with education level than with urban/rural?
And what about the social contract that says there should be equal opportunity between country and city, affordable public services and healthcare etc.? Isn’t this more fundamental than being polite on the bus?
We should work together as a society to ensure that fate of the poorest, most unfortunate human being could be something that a reasonable human being could accept, as, for example, laid out by John Rawls, the greatest political philosopher of our time. He called this idea the original position.
“Far and away the most striking feature of Rawls’s original position idea is the veil of ignorance. As Rawls pointed out, the idea of an initial situation of choice for ethico-political principles is common to other approaches, and represents a hypotheticalization of familiar reasoning within the social contract tradition.”
You are an educated person, right Micah? So please forgive me if I point it out when I think you aren’t seeing the forest for the trees.
I mean, if we’re going to bring up the social contract, let’s get real.
I was ready to refute Richard’s cultural relativity excuse until I saw John B.’s excellent response. No Chinese employer would look the other way if it was discovered that an employee was skimming from the till. In fact, my Chinese employer was harsh in dealing with his employees. He fired one driver for using the company bus to ferry his relatives on tomb-sweeping day and fined another the cost of the gas. The other one was able to keep his job only because he had been with the boss a long time and was a favorite.
I feel I should chime in but John B. pretty much took care of it. So I’ll just add:
Not so naive,
Yes I have done business in China and EVEN read books about business in China but knowledge of some of China’s shadier business practices does not give the “enlightened”, such as yourself, carte blanche to indict an entire people as untrustworthy. People steal and screw each other the world over, not just in China. And in my dealings the person who screwed me over the most was an American Born Chinese person…hmm…maybe you’re right…maybe Chinese the world over can’t be trusted…WITCH HUNT!!!! Oh, and pseudonyms are for pussies.
Yeah cultures are different. It’s something to ponder. Changes how you act in situations. What can you do?
My ayi left me a few weeks ago. Worked for me a year and a half, and then she found another job that required her to work evenings, and then, poof, three days notice. I miss her, because she was actually pretty good. Sometimes there’d be spots on the glasses, but overall she did a good job. Got the clothes nice and ironed and everything. Her food was a bit monotonous, but I put up with it because she was trustworthy. She had her own key to my place and would come over even when I wasn’t there. My previous ayi only lasted a month, and she was from some distant countryside place, and her food was swimming in grease. No thanks.
It’s not an excuse (in the sense that I was saying what she was doing was right), but that there are relative degrees of wrongness, and different cultures judge some things to be more wrong than others (also, some cultures are more corruption-averse than others). There are also cultural differences within China as well (big diverse place, etc.). In some places/families, people are taught that stealing (or even taking something someone left behind) is very wrong. In others, stealing/cheating what you can get away with is ajudged to be OK (so long as it’s not from your family/people, or it doesn’t hurt anyone, or some other rationale). Moving outside of the US and China, some cultures don’t attach a lot of importance to the concept of personal property, so people take and use other people’s things all the time. Also, people seem to differ in their risk-averseness across regions (that is, some people may be willing to risk committing a crime if they think the reward is big enough, while others aren’t. Finally, I don’t think that 50+ years of Communism helped much in refining people’s ethics or imbuing a respect for other people’s personal property.
Anyway, I’d make the groundrules of what ethics I expect clear to people who work for me, though I’m not sure how much good that would ultimately do. I know that, talking to my father and father’s friends (who were originally from Zhejiang, but now are in Taiwan or the US), that they consider the Yangtze river delta to be more livable than almost anywhere else in China’s interior not only because of creature comforts, but because they’re use to the social norms and mores in the Jiangnan. After a while, they say, you get tired with having to constantly guard against being ripped off or taken advantage of. Of course, I do think that it helps that the Jiangnan has traditionally been one of the most prosperous (and stable) parts of China.
Couldn’t agree more. Especially with the part about Jiangnan being better to live in than the rest of China. Hell yeah it is. I’ve been all over China, with the exception of the interior and extreme West of China, so you could say (more accurately) I’ve been over a good 15% of China (
Richard, your explanation makes sense. Some of the ayi’s friends and family might not judge her actions to be wrong, but a Chinese employer would.
I think the key to success in hiring an ayi is to hire one with experience and references (which might cost a little more) or hire someone with personal connections. My second ayi was the retired mother of my Chinese teacher. She did a great job and was very honest. I paid her a little more than the average rate, which was fair because I didn’t want an average ayi.
My Ayi’s husband steals products from his company where he is a driver and she sells them to her friends and customers. When her bike broke, she tried to convince him to steal a bike for her, but he wasn’t willing because he “was afraid of getting caught.”
They are part of a system where the CEO of the company that owns the company the husband works for makes millions and millions of dollars per year, while the husband just makes a $80 per month.
Every day they are passed by BMWs and Benzs as they trudge to work. As an English teacher, I bring in more cash in a month than my Ayi and her husband do in a year and more than Ayi’s mother and father do in 20 years!
Faced with such huge income gaps and exploitation, who can blame someone for taking a few crates of goods? Where is the greater moral offense committed? Is it committed by those in poverty or by those exploiting people in poverty?
Yes, if it weren’t for me and my Ayi’s husband’s company, they would not have the opportunity make the meager income they do. But in a world system with such huge gaps between rich and poor, how can we possibly judge the poor by our privileged standards for skimming a little off the profits of people who are exponentially wealthier than they are?
The morality of the poor is a different issue from business ethics. We should not conflate the two unless we make the relationship between them clear, in which case I think we may reach different conclusions from the ones we have so far.
For years and years, anthropologists believed that a certain efficient tool making method had not been developed in Australian aborigines until recent times. Then in the 70s a Harvard anthropologist named Richard Gould lived with a group of aborigines for a year. One day, he observed an aborigine making a tool using an ancient, wasteful method that was thought to be extinct. He asked, “Why are you doing it that way?” The aborigine responded, “Because the rock we use to make tools is plentiful here, so I don’t need to conserve. When the rocks are scarce, I use the more advanced method.”
This observation caused big waves in the anthropological world because it was part of a movement that changed theory of cultural evolution from one of progressing technologies (teleological) to one of adaptation (people simply adapt behavior and technology to circumstances–not all behavior is, however, is optimally adaptive or optimally efficient until we are constrained by our environment to react.)
There is an alternative or perhaps supplement to cultural relativism here: People adapt to circumstances. Again, if you were my Ayi (or John’s Ayi), wouldn’t you do the same? You’ve got a kid who will never have real opportunity because he can’t even attend the normal school system in Shanghai due to government policy. You are selecting which vaccines he receives and doesn’t receive because you need to save a few kuai. During the new year, he cries and cries because he sees a Shanghainese kid with some candied fruit, and he wants one too. It breaks your heart, so you buy him one, but you have an empty feeling in your gut as you see your child swallow up an hour’s worth of wages in one bite when you haven’t even got him fully vaccinated. Your husband gets drunk and gambles and even beats you sometimes, but you can never leave him because it would mean total social ostracism both for you and your child.
The morality of the privileged is a luxury my Ayi cannot afford.
Laska, you make a good point. It reminds me of an episode from Michael Moore’s shortlived TV series from a few years ago, Corporate Cops, a parody of the TV show Cops. In Corporate Cops, white collar criminals were hunted down, cuffed, and shoved in a squad car.
I was not judging petty thieves, and I don’t think John was either. We just wouldn’t want one working in our homes.
I think people steal for many reasons. On CNN, I saw a piece on construction theft. This police officer caught on tape a couple stealing turf from a house under construction. The couple drove away in a land rover to a big McMansion. The officer pointed out their wealth and asked them point-blank why they stole the grass. The woman shrugged and stammered, “I don’t know,” and offered to write a check. The couple was jailed. Actress Winona Ryder was prosecuted for shoplifting.
I wonder at what point is a person no longer poor enough to feel justified in stealing. What is “enough”?
As for the gap between the rich few and the poor masses in China, I am reminded of a scene I witnessed outside of Jusco in Qingdao. A Chinese couple were snapping digital photos of their toddler while a disheveled beggar and her toddler watched nearby.
Speaking of petty theft, I think it’s interesting that regarding matters of money lying around the apartment, Zhou Ayi was always 100% honest. I am sure that she would never take money from my home that wasn’t hers. Somehow she seemed to feel that food money accounting had its own set of morals attached, however.
I can second this and I think it’s a really interesting point.
Even with previous Ayis with whom I haven’t had such a good rapport, I’ve never had any money go missing from around the house, nor have I ever really worried about it, though my wife sometimes does.
It seems that bilking money or playing the system belongs to a different social category, and (I’m saying this off the cuff) culturally this separate set of morals for creative accounting and stuff falling off the truck seems to overcross class and privelege… When a certain famous international food company is declared a “Hi-tech enterprise” on the basis of political connections (despite not really being all that hi-tech), this is seen by my Chinese friends as “using reasonable (!) means to decrease tax burden,” not as cheating the tax man. Remember, this is not just looking for a loophole, but actually using political muscle to change your status.
When the salesperson at my school overdeclares the transportation expenses for my classes and pockets the money, this is seen as a smart way to make an extra buck… everyone does it.
But if you actually pocket some money you see lying on the table, that is stealing. Or is it just that there is no plausible deniability if you are caught?
“some cultures are more corruption-averse” — is that the PC way of saying that some cultures are more corrupt than others?
Micah, I don’t know what urban dwellers you hang around in China, but none of the ones I know are familiar with Rousseau. So native Shanghainese are more polite, don’t litter, and follow traffic laws? You must live in that alternate China where Hu Jintao has a mustache.
I think I was a bit hard on Micah (not that he or anyone else even cares). Someone just hawked a big loogie on the floor of the Hualian Supermarket tonight when I bought my frozen jiaozi, and it really annoyed me.
I was tempted to admonish him as I walked past…”Why can’t you waidiren behave better? Don’t you know you’re in Shanghai now?”
If he said with a wounded look that he was from Shanghai, I would have asked why he couldn’t be more ke ai… 🙂
Yes, some cultures are more corrupt (of course, if you ask the “corrupt culture people”, they’d just say that some cultures are more uptight).
Being morally conscious doesn’t mean that your actions need to reflect it. It’s about prioritizing. If you need something to survive you’ll do whatever is necessary to get it, even if it’s morally wrong. It’s just that in most cases people with power and money have more time to assess whether something is just or not.
This discussion has reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was trying to elicit the word “honest” from my adult students.
Me: “Say you left RMB50 in the classroom and when you came back next week, I gave it back to you. What would you call me?”
Shanghainese girl in the second row raises her hand: “Stupid?”
Personally, I love the phrase “emotional spectrum of a robot accountant”.
While we are all talking about morals and ethics let me ask this: How many of us have pirated movies/software?
Knowing that the wonderful RIAA is everywhere, I must say that I don’t own any illegal music/software. But in an alternate universe, my alter ego evil twin loves to rip off the music/movie/software industry at every possible opportunity.
I do have lots of pirated movies but among those is some Ashton Kutcher, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Julia Stiles movies, so I feel I have been punished enough for my illegal purchases.
Love it. You should be in the advertising business.
I am confused. I’m only learning mandarin, but I thought ayi was aunt?